By nearly any measure, overall human well-being has never been higher than today. By nearly any measure, the overall health of our planet has never in human history been falling as fast as it is today. Sustainability is defined by the urgent task of reconciling these two trends. The longer we wait, the fewer options we have.

With this dilemma in mind, the five of us and occasionally other alumni have been meeting via Zoom to discuss what we can do. We became friends as undergrads in the mid-1980s, after which our lives went in various directions. Decades later, we appreciate even more the sense of connection we have with one another and with Princeton. As we discussed sustainability, we realized that our diversity of perspectives is illuminating, reminding us of how much any of us still has to learn. We recognize how much more must be gained by broadening the conversation further. And that brought us to consider how to make use of our shared Princeton connection.

To their credit, as described in detail in the April 2023 issue of PAW focusing on climate change, Princeton’s faculty, students, and administrators are working in countless ways to find solutions that contribute to sustainability. Various institutes and initiatives are focused on many aspects of sustainability, from developing better technologies to creating the interdisciplinary approaches needed to address complex problems, from understanding the flow of information about climate change to charting a path to a net-zero nation. For example, the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment published a widely disseminated study, Net-Zero America, on actual routes for the U.S. to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Yet there is something missing from such efforts: coordinated alumni engagement.

Alumni have much more to offer, and to overlook the potential power that currently exists in abundance is to miss an enormous opportunity. Especially at this critical juncture, we need new and more ways to turn policy papers, such as the one cited above, into sustained capital allocation.

Typically, Princeton has harnessed the strength of its loyal alumni community to raise funds or to help students make connections that lead to jobs. But alumni have much more to offer, and to overlook the potential power that currently exists in abundance is to miss an enormous opportunity. Especially at this critical juncture, we need new and more ways to turn policy papers, such as the one cited above, into sustained capital allocation. Collectively, Princeton alumni have great breadth and depth of experience across many fields relevant to sustainability.  Such experience is fundamental to accelerating the implementation of solutions to this existential challenge.

Henry P. Huntington ’87, J. David Stewart ’87, Bennet Ratcliff  ’87, W. Douglas Burden ’88; and Peter J. Lasky ’87.
FIVE MINDS Clockwise from top left: Henry P. Huntington ’87, J. David Stewart ’87, Bennet Ratcliff ’87, W. Douglas Burden ’88; and Peter J. Lasky ’87.
Photos: Sameer A. Khan h’21; Juliet Lofaro; courtesy Doug Burden ’88

How do we connect the intellectual power of Princeton with the experience and capability of its alumni? Alumni Day lectures and panel discussions at Reunions are terrific, but they are often just talk. They are not intended to systematically draw on the professional expertise of alumni and their networks to create the continuity of engagement necessary to build the trust and commitment required to produce solutions. We propose that Princeton scholars, administrators, and alumni actively partner in the shared quest for achieving sustainability.

A few examples illustrate the potential of such collaborations:

Example 1

Mobilizing funds

The scale of actions needed to achieve sustainability requires rapid and widespread deployment of society’s resources. One requirement is money. How can the necessary amounts of capital be mobilized to fund, say, the construction of the estimated hundreds of large-scale solar farms needed to go online each week nationwide for the next 10 to 15 years to replace fossil fuels in generating electricity? Many Princeton alumni have tremendous experience in the financial service industry: within capital markets, private equity and infrastructure funds, and as transaction attorneys. Working together, Princeton students, scholars, and alums with relevant professional expertise can create an action plan for how to raise the hundreds of billions of dollars necessary to install the required solar facilities — and then figure out how to put that plan into practice.

Example 2

Sharing success

Many towns and cities understand the value of sustainability transitions, but the practical steps for getting there are often elusive. Sorting through information and misinformation surrounding various options is a daunting task: Creating a database that has tangible solutions used by other jurisdictions, and perhaps also contact information, would be a good place to start. Making it easier, and more obvious, to share and scale solutions that have been effective elsewhere would be another great tool that alums could help publicize and promote by creating clear and crisp messaging (including through social media platforms). In 2021, Austin, Texas, with Stephen Adler ’78 as mayor, adopted a Climate Equity Plan with a goal of achieving net zero by 2040. Other similar-sized cities could efficiently leverage the detailed action plan in place as well as refine those actions as Austin perfects those plans during implementation. Alums with expertise in advertising, lobbying and political engagement, and government could all contribute to solving this problem.

Example 3

Scaling up

Heating, cooling, and otherwise operating homes and businesses nationwide uses a great deal of energy. Improving the efficiency of buildings pays off quickly and reliably: U.S. building stock currently accounts for around 28% of the total U.S. final energy use, according to a study conducted by the U.S. Energy Information Association. Existing best practices in energy efficiency could reduce this by an estimated 20%. Yet many building owners are not making these investments. The many Princeton alumni who have experience in the real estate and engineering sectors — from construction to real estate management, to real estate investment and architecture — could team up with Princeton scholars to create solutions and compelling outreach to help scale them nationwide.

Recognizing the great potential for alumni-scholar collaborations, the question is how to get them started. We are working with Professor Chris Greig at the Andlinger Center on some initial ideas. In addition, we have created a form online here where interested alumni can sign up. We have identified a few “grand challenges” (illustrated by the examples above), and we welcome creative thinking about other and better ways to harness the collective power of Princeton’s entire family. We are prepared to take on one or two topics to explore the potential for alumni-scholar collaborations, and we hope to inspire others to do likewise.

If our society is to achieve a sustainable future at anything close to our current standard of living, we need to act quickly. Waiting for a technological or other miracle is wishful thinking, not a viable strategy. In other words, sustainability is only possible as a team endeavor. This is the most important moon shot ever: Join us.